CAIRO (AP) — With crying babies in their arms, dozens of Egyptian mothers rallied on Thursday on a major Cairo road, blocking traffic to denounce severe shortages of subsidized baby formula, a protest underscoring how austerity measures aimed at healing the country's ailing economy are hitting ordinary Egyptians hard.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund initially agreed to extend to Egypt a $12 billion loan over three years. Details have not been released but cuts in subsidies and new taxes are believed to be part of the government's reform program that was critical in securing the loan, which is still subject to approval by IMF's executive board.
The deal is aimed at helping stabilize Egypt's falling currency, reduce the budget deficit and government debt, boost growth and create jobs. But subsidy cuts have a history of stoking unrest in Egypt.
At Thursday's rally in eastern Cairo, some of the mothers broke into tears while displaying empty milk bottles to reporters as they stood for hours on the asphalt with no protection from the scorching sun.
Riot police with helmets and batons were deployed to reopen the road but didn't force an end to the protest, held in front of the state-run Egyptian Pharmaceutical Trading Company in eastern Cairo. In footage carried by el-Youm el-Sabaa news portal a mother is seen shouting at the policemen: "We are not talking about tomatoes, food, or drink, but formula for the babies."
Mahmoud Fouad of the Egyptian Center to Protect the Right for Medicine said this is the first time that Egypt has cut baby formula subsidies.
"It's also the first time that mothers rally in the streets to ask for food for their babies," he said.
Formula prices have increased 40 percent and the Ministry of Health has announced that, starting this month, authorities will issue cards to mothers who meet certain criteria making them eligible for the subsidized formula — such as having twins, working for more than seven hours a day, or having medical records that show poor health.
The ministry is introducing about 1,000 government-run distribution centers for baby formula across the country. It's not clear what exactly caused the formula shortages.
Health Minister Ahmed Radi said in a Cabinet statement on Thursday that the government measures will regulate distribution so the subsidized formula goes to those who need it the most.
The ministry said that the government provided 18 million packages of baby formula, worth 450 million Egyptian pounds, or about $51 million.